California raises questions over four-day workweeks

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Assemblymembers Cristina Garcia and Evan Low proposed a bill to change the traditional five-day workweek to four days, pushing for a better work-life balance for employees. “It means that people are able to get groceries, go to the bank, take their car to the shop or see a doctor without having to squeeze it in after a workday or weekend when everyone is doing the same thing,” Michael O’Neall said.

Working eight hours a day and five days a week has long since been the norm in the U.S. However, California legislators have recently proposed amends to current labor laws in a new bill.

“After two years of being in the pandemic, we’ve had over 47 million employees leave their job looking for better opportunities,” said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, the bill’s cosponsor, in an interview with CBS News. “And as we are in a moment of transition, and businesses are adapting, this is the time to have that discussion.”

The bill plans to shorten the standard workweek to four days for companies with over 500 employees while sticking to eight-hour workdays. It also requires that employers pay those who work overtime at least 1.5 times their usual pay rate. On top of that, the bill prohibits employers from giving pay cuts due to the reduced hours.

Many are hopeful that four-day workweeks could provide relief to their daily schedules. They believe that it will allow them the flexibility to complete other necessary tasks or commit to personal projects. 

“We get so absorbed in our schedules, working, and so forth, that we don’t have time to balance them with other things that are important,” Carlmont teacher David Braunstein said. “So if you think about it, there are five days to work and two days to rest. Many times we don’t even use those two days to rest, but there are other days to work.”

Four-day workweeks will also give time for employees to take a mental break from the strain that comes with their work. In Iceland, a study performed by Autonomy and the Association for Sustainable Democracy trialed 35 and 36-hour workweeks from 2015 to 2019. As a result, employees in workplaces such as offices or outdoor jobs experienced increased well-being.

Overall, happy and healthy workers just perform better,” Carlmont teacher Michael O’Neall said. “If you’re stressed or sick, it’s hard to do work well, and it’s easy to make mistakes.”

Others are more skeptical about the approach. People who have more going on in their lives can find the changes confusing and hard to adapt to. In contrast, having an extra day of rest could mean wandering around aimlessly for those with more time on their hands. 

“During that extra day, there’s no normal schedule, so people can get lost and waste their time,” Braunstein said. “I don’t mean waste in terms of ‘resting is wasting,’ but you’re just not doing anything productive.”

Furthermore, some feel as though the four-day workweek wouldn’t suit the work dynamic of some companies and that employees may still be inclined to work longer hours, especially if employers aren’t as happy paying overtime.

“I’m not sure how that would translate to Silicon Valley since there seems to be a constant race in tech to come out with the fastest and most innovative products,” Carlmont teacher Robert Tsuchiyama said. “I think there would be workers who would still be working five or six days a week even if they are technically on a four-day workweek.”

Because the five-day workweek is already in place, people plan their lives around when students are in school, when parents are at work, and when everyone is at home. If a parent’s four-day workweek is different from the student’s four-day school week it could definitely cause some problems with child care.”

— Michael O'Neall

Nonetheless, many companies have already begun to exercise more accommodative work schedules for employees, including a handful of big-name companies like Panasonic and Toshiba.

And although the four-day workweek may not apply to schools, some school districts have implemented four-day school weeks with a similar goal to improve the health of their students and teachers. 

So far, many teachers at Carlmont High School were pleased with the asynchronous Wednesday schedule from the previous school year.

We still did a lot of work on those days, but it did give us time to collaborate, work on things that we haven’t had time to work on, and to re-energize,” Tsuchiyama said. 

As much of an appeal shorter school weeks pose for both parties, some teachers are unsure how they will impact their ability to teach students. 

You’re not getting the reinforcement you need on some of the material,” Braunstein said. “I don’t know how many hours you’d have to be in class to meet the minimum requirements, and we already have 180 some odd days. Would you need more as a result?”

Ultimately, despite the mixed perspectives, developing effective systems for both quality of life and work is a hope of many for the future.

“I think it is a step in the right direction, though I don’t think it will be easy to pass either,” O’Neall said. “There tends to be a lot of pushback on changes to our current systems, even when it seems overwhelmingly positive.”